Magic in the Moonlight (United States, 2014)July 27, 2014
Working at his current pace, Woody Allen delivers one film per year. Unfortunately, it has been decades since Allen's endeavors have been consistently good. In fact, even as far back as the 1990s, quality movies have been more the exception than the rule for the filmmaker – his "must see" efforts have been bookended by stretches of mediocrity. While I would like nothing more than to declare his 2014 entry, Magic in the Moonlight, to be the next Woody Allen masterpiece, the truth is that it's just another unmemorable motion picture for which it's difficult to remember the broad brush strokes, not to mention the details, once the house lights have come on. The evocative title and intriguing premise don't extend to any other production aspects. One wonders whether this is an attempt by Allen to recapture some of what made 2011's Midnight in Paris a modest box office hit.
Magic in the Moonlight wants to weigh in on the age-old debate between skepticism and faith. Allen has sidestepped angering those with strong religious convictions (although I'd imagine few of those comprise his devout demographic) by making the "belief" aspect one of the occult. On the one side of this struggle is a young, pretty clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone), who is reputedly so good at what she does that her claims of conversing with the dead couldn't possibly be fake. Then there's Stanley (Colin Firth), a world-famous master magician and debunker of mystics who accepts two basic tenets: there is no afterlife and, as a result, anyone claiming to talk to the dead is employing some form of trickery. The stage is therefore set for Stanley to take on Sophie.
Allen's first mistake is turning this rivalry into a May/December romance. His second misstep is "converting" Stanley, thereby neutering the delightfully acerbic quality that characterizes his and Sophie's early interactions. Colin Firth's performance is spot-on when he's playing Stanley as an arrogant ass; when circumstances force the character to become more humble and human, Firth founders. This is likely more a fault in the writing than in the performance; sincerity has never been a strong quality for Allen. He's better when his characters are infused with doubt and self-loathing.
Magic in the Moonlight boasts a strong first act. Firth is deliciously insufferable, the movie has a light, fresh tone, and Emma Stone has recaptured the appealing qualities leeched out of her in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After a while, however, it becomes apparent that Allen doesn't understand how to effectively dramatize the central question of his film. Perhaps that's because the deck is stacked (Allen having been upfront about his personal lack of spirituality) or perhaps it's because he can't effectively navigate the romantic waters into which he takes his characters. Stanley's transformation, which transpires in concert with his falling for Sophie, doesn't come close to being credible. The film's final 30 minutes are especially messy. Fans of Firth from Pride and Prejudice may be amused to note that Stanley's marriage proposal echoes the one Firth's Mr. Darcy delivered to Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet some 20 years ago. Whether intentional or not, it's indicative of how closely Firth has become identified with Jane Austen's best-known male lead. (He even played a version of the character, "Mark Darcy," in Bridget Jones' Diary and its sequel.)
Magic in the Moonlight is more of a throw-away than a keeper. It feels like an occasion for the cast and crew to take a holiday. (Filming occurred in the south of France and the photography, by Darius Khondjii, is magnificent.) There are some solid laughs and a palpable chemistry exists between Firth and Stone (most evident during a scene lensed in the Nice Observatory). Eileen Atkins, in a small role as Stanley's wise, witty aunt (an Allen staple), is delightful. Counterbalancing that, however, is an unendurably annoying turn by Hamish Linklater as the besotted Brice, who serenades Sophie on a ukulele. On the whole, Magic in the Moonlight feels more vapid than it should. It never achieves the altitude necessary for it to soar. Allen is on autopilot and, as a result, despite the presence of magicians and mystics, there's no magic. Blue Jasmine captured a Best Actress Oscar for leading lady Cate Blanchett. It's hard to see Magic in the Moonlight catching the notice of the Academy – or anyone else for that matter.
Magic in the Moonlight (United States, 2014)
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Darius Khondjii
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics